Book review: Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky

A quick, entertaining read, Elder Race may appear fairly formulaic at the first glance.  Tchaikovsky’s idiosyncrasies in his writing style further enhance this perception.  However, the novella still includes a few hidden layers, which push it from a light evening read to an insightful work, which may present a few ideas that will stick with the reader for a while.

In a medieval world, Lynesse, known to her friends as Lyn, is the fourth daughter of the local ruler.  As such, she has few responsibilities other than not to embarrass her mother and older sisters, and there are even fewer expectations placed on her.  By virtue of being at the court, she learns about a demon that slaughters entire villages on the outskirts of the realm and decides to prove that she can do more than just act like a lady.  She travels to the tower of the mysterious magician Nyrgoth the Elder, wakes him from his slumber and enlists his help to defeat the demon, as he once helped her predecessor to defeat a wizard king.

Not all is at it seems, though.  Nyrgoth is actually Nyr, an anthropologist from Earth, who was stationed on Lyn’s planet centuries ago, to study her culture.  Earth has colonized a part of the galaxy a long time ago, but due to an unspecified societal collapse, lost contact with its colonies.  Some of these planets regressed technologically to various stages, and once Earth’s situation improved, it sent anthropologists to study these worlds.  Nyr possesses technology that appears to Lyn’s people as magic.

They set forth on a journey to the forests where the demon is rampaging.  Along the way, Nyr struggles with his conscience, trying to reconcile between his calling as a scientist who cannot interfere, and a human who feel the need to help other humans.  To make matters worse for him, Nyr employs a technology that disassociates his emotions from his decision making.  All his emotions remain bottled up, piling on top of each other, and require the technology to be turned off at times, so that he can let off some steam.  And if that wasn’t enough, Nyr also labors with his automatic translation implants, as he tries to explain some basic truths to Lyn.

When they approach the area affected by the demon, they find that it has the power to mutate plants, animals, and humans.  In visuals that are eerily similar to Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space, they approach a clearing with an interdimensional gate, from which something unknown affects the gate’s surroundings, with its mutagenic powers.  The initial attempt to destroy the gate via a maintenance drone fails, but Nyr instructs Lyn to stab him in a certain spot, from which he digs out a locator beacon, places it near the gate and instructs an overhead satellite to unleash an orbital strike, which vaporizes the gate.  The two manage to escape just in time.  When Nyr recovers, he decides to join the local society and for the first time reaches out to the local population.

Scientists being mistaken for magicians, abandoned colonies descending into lower technological tier and unseen observers of the local society are common tropes in science fiction.  I could spend the next few paragraphs just naming works that perfected the ideas, from classics like Aldiss’ Helliconia Trilogy and Le Guin’s Hainish cycle, to lesser known (but no less deserving) works.  What may set this one apart from others is the abrupt turn from the conventional science fiction to the totally unexpected cosmic horror, complete with an open ending.  I choose to believe that even the title hints to this, tongue in cheek.  While ostensibly describing the “race” of anthropologists and other scientists who use extended periods of suspended animation, “Elder race” becomes the unknown and unknowable horror that randomly opens a portal to this world, and without actual purpose or malice begins transforming everything living into mutated monsters.

This twist from a rather standard fantasy/science fiction mashup is still quite obvious, though.  So is the idea of a technology that separates decision making and emotions.  I found it intriguing, especially the aspect of an emotional debt, which needs to find an outlet.  Nyr is stranded on the planet, as all communication from Earth ceased a long time ago.  For all he knows, he may be the last survivor of old Earth.  Naturally, this makes him depressed already, and his inability to communicate properly, his dilemma about helping people, all pile up on his emotional debt for the time he turns his technology off.  I’m not one to enjoy depictions of self-pity, but I would have appreciated if the author spent more time and detail on this technology and its effects.

Where the novel really shines, though, is the imperfect communication.  The chapters are alternating between Lyn and Nyr.  Tchaikovsky once again alternates past (Lyn) and present tense (Nyr), but this time throws in a third-person perspective for Lyn and first-person for Nyr.  This gives the chapters a very unique and strong voice, and the reader can understand that the communication between the two may not be all that good.  This comes to crux, somewhat hilariously, when Nyr tries to explain to Lyn where he is from and who he actually is.  For the reader, this sounds like a plausible futuristic scenario.  However, Nyr’s implant auto-translates his thoughts into something understandable to Lyn: a myth that reached the status of a children’s story in Lyn’s world.  So, while Nyr thinks he is revealing something groundbreaking that would alter Lyn’s perception of him, Lyn hears the same story she did as a small child and completely dismisses it.  Nyr’s frustration is almost palpable, and for me it was the highlight of the book.

At first, I’ve had a very lukewarm reaction to this novella.  The setting and tropes are overused just enough to not offer anything radically new, and despite the story being rather short, I was somewhat reluctant to keep on reading.  However, this work had enough unique elements in the second act, in particular the communication challenge, to spark my interest, and the third act took such a wonderfully weird and unexpected turn that I genuinely enjoyed the book.  Given the amount of unanswered questions, I hope I’ll get to enjoy a sequel to Elder Race in the future.

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